THE TOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN

I know they’re only games, but I’m thrilled to write about them again

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - RICK MOR­RIS­SEY rmor­ris­sey@sun­times.com | @Mor­ris­seyCST

After a pro­longed dry­ness, we now find our­selves awash in live sports. Yes, the pres­ence of COVID-19 means that the whole thing is ten­u­ous. Yes, it’s dis­ori­ent­ing — NHL play­off games in August? Isn’t that like ice cream truck mu­sic in Jan­uary?

But it’s also glo­ri­ous. We’ve gone from noth­ing to base­ball, bas­ket­ball and hockey in what feels like the blink of an eye. The virus can take it all away from us just as quickly. That can’t be em­pha­sized too much. Ac­tu­ally, yes it can. I cer­tainly have done it. Let’s put the pes­simism on pause for a mo­ment and en­joy the op­por­tu­nity to watch great ath­letes do their thing. Did we take that for granted, pre-pan­demic? The way we take oxy­gen for granted.

The Cubs are play­ing great, cer­tainly bet­ter than most peo­ple ex­pected. After a 1-4 start, the White Sox are show­ing why there was so much ex­cite­ment about them be­fore the sea­son.

We find our­selves talk­ing about com­fort­able, fa­mil­iar things now, such as the Cubs’ con­tin­ued in­abil­ity to find a le­git­i­mate lead­off hit­ter. We’re hav­ing sports de­bates atop our vir­tual barstools. We’re smil­ing at Theo Ep­stein’s tac­ti­cal strike on for­mer Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don the other day . . . I mean Ep­stein’s praise for new Cubs man­ager David Ross.

“He has stepped in and helped ad­dress some things that have been lin­ger­ing for years,” the team’s pres­i­dent said. “And for him to do that in the first two weeks [of the sea­son] is re­ally im­pres­sive.”

It was no se­cret that the Cubs’ front of­fice thought the club­house

and dugout had de­volved into Club Mad, where mental mis­takes were al­lowed to slide and de­fen­sive slop­pi­ness was an ac­cept­able fash­ion state­ment. One of the big ques­tions of the off­sea­son was whether Ross, friend to every­body ev­ery­where, would have it in him to call out his for­mer team­mates. Ques­tion an­swered in the af­fir­ma­tive, Ep­stein said.

And in what I’d like to think was an­other howdy to Mad­don, Ep­stein praised the Cubs’ ros­ter.

“I’ve never given up faith in our guys,” he said. “I think we had more tal­ent than the re­sults would in­di­cate the last cou­ple of years.”

As I said, it’s good to be back talk­ing about things that don’t mat­ter in the grand scheme of things. We’ve had about all we can take of the grand scheme of things.

The early part of any base­ball sea­son is al­ways a mon­u­ment to over­re­ac­tion. One player is a bum be­cause he has gone 1-for-20 since Open­ing Day. An­other player is great, we al­ways knew it, and his five home runs in 10 games prove us right. But this short­ened 60-game sea­son gives huge mean­ing to the first 10 to 20 games.

It fa­vored some­one like the en­thu­si­as­tic Ross. A new man­ager has his team’s full at­ten­tion early on. When the team suc­ceeds in an abridged sched­ule, with the play­offs that much closer, his mes­sages take on deeper mean­ing. It wasn’t lost on any­one that Ross let Kyle Hendricks go nine in­nings in an Open­ing Day shutout over the Brew­ers. That was the same Hendricks whom Mad­don al­ways had on a five- or six-in­ning leash.

“I love that guy,” Hendricks said of Ross after the game. “We just love play­ing for him. We’ve been wait­ing for this mo­ment. We were ex­cited in the spring be­fore this all started and just the vibe and the en­ergy he brings ev­ery day.’’

Re­al­ity is lurk­ing, of course. The Cubs’ weekend series in St. Louis is in jeop­ardy be­cause 13 mem­bers of the Car­di­nals’ or­ga­ni­za­tion have tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19. There’s the un­shak­able feel­ing that any­thing can hap­pen at any given mo­ment. But we march on, happy to watch what­ever is put in front of us.

We’re still talk­ing about things in sports that would have made no sense six months ago. Masks. Bub­bles. Magic City chicken wings. But it’s progress. Doesn’t the 10-part ESPN doc­u­men­tary on Michael Jor­dan seem like it ran a year ago? We were happy when the series came our way, but now that we have live sports, we re­al­ize it was just a faint sub­sti­tute for the real thing. There are mem­o­ries and then there are cur­rent events. We’re happy to be back in the present tense.

Are we us­ing the ath­letes? Of course we are. We’re ask­ing them not to so­cially dis­tance from one an­other on the play­ing field. They are there for our en­ter­tain­ment, and in the same way we bliss­fully watch foot­ball while play­ers’ brains are be­ing turned into old let­tuce, we watch blindly while base­ball play­ers trade germs.

It’s called es­cape. Some of us think that sports won’t be able to evade the pan­demic, that even­tu­ally base­ball will have to shut down be­cause of the coro­n­avirus. But for now, let’s en­joy the show.

GETTY IMAGES

Is man­ager David Ross an im­prove­ment over Joe Mad­don? Cubs pres­i­dent Theo Ep­stein seems to think so.

DY­LAN BUELL/GETTY IMAGES

Slug­ger Eloy Jimenez, rookie Luis Robert and the ex­cit­ing White Sox have given their fans some­thing to cheer about this sea­son.

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